I always imagined that my kids and I would watch loads of movies together. We would start at home with sweet animated features like Toy Story or movies I loved as a kid, like The Red Balloon. Then as they got older, we would go out regularly, settling in with our salty buckets of popcorn to watch the latest family flick. It hasn’t worked out like that, though. Ben, at seven, has only seen one movie in a theater, a special screening of The Polar Express for a friend’s birthday. He lasted about ten minutes before he came out to the lobby, overwhelmed; the loud soundtrack and the huge projected images were just too much for him. Meanwhile, although I managed a few mom and baby movies when Eli was still a tiny nursling, I had to quit those screenings before he was nine months old; instead of sleeping quietly while I caught up on the latest releases, he wanted to watch and chat with the figures on screen. At four, he’s happy to watch the same movies at home that Ben has been watching for years: Curious George; Toy Story; The Little Prince. But I’m getting bored, and wanted to find something new that might suit their very different temperaments.
So recently I rented one of my old favorites, an animated children’s film that I’d seen with my husband before we had kids (it’s that good): The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 1999). I previewed it without Ben or his younger brother Eli to check for scary bits and although I saw scenes which could frighten them, I thought the sweet, funny friendship between a young boy, a giant robot, and a ’50s beatnik artist would outweigh any scary bits.
I was going to save the movie for a special mama-sons movie night, but one rainy evening with the boys a little stir crazy, I offered them a treat: dinner on the couch and an hour of movie before bed. This first section let the boys see how Hogarth, the only child of a single working mom (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) meets Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), a scrap metal sculptor, and the Iron Giant (Vin Diesel), who crashes into a small town on the coast of Maine one day in 1957. The town is fully in the throes of the Red Scare; customers at the diner read papers with bold headlines about Sputnik, while Hogarth sits through duck-and-cover movies at school. The atmosphere feeds Hogarth’s vivid imagination; a fan of sci-fi movies and comic books about Superman and Atomo, he sneaks out one night searching for aliens or Russians, and finds the Iron Giant munching on a power plant. When a crossed wire threatens to electrocute the robot, Hogarth saves him by shutting the big power switch, and a friendship starts to blossom.
We paused there, and headed for bed. I told the boys about the Space Race (downplaying the fear and spinning it as a healthy scientific competition); we reread one of our favorite used bookstore finds, Adventures in the Solar System: Planetron and Me, about a boy who travels in outer space with a robot friend. As I kissed my boys good night, I felt content that I had planted sweet space-travel dreams in their heads.
We settled in for Act Two before dinner the next day. Hogarth and the Giant’s friendship develops easily as Hogarth teaches the Giant language, offers him food (tasty, tasty scrap metal), brings him comic books to read and finds him a safe place to live at Dean’s junkyard. The Giant gives Hogarth airplane rides by spinning him fast, high in his arms, and he helps Dean fashion more elaborate sculptures out of the twisted remains of car parts and crowbars. Eli kept cracking himself up quoting the scene when the Giant mistakes one of Dean’s artworks for an appetizer and Dean hollers: “What you currently have — in your mouth — is ART!” Both boys loved the tsunami the Giant causes when he cannonballs into the swimming hole, and delighted in trying to imitate his gravelly voice.
Hogarth’s a bit of a loner – like my son, a smart kid who doesn’t quite fit in with the pack — and perhaps a metal robot and a bachelor aren’t the most appropriate friends for him, but they give him some confidence in his abilities. And sometimes it takes an outsider to say what you really need to hear. As Dean comments about Hogarth’s bullies, “They don’t decide who you are, you do. You are who you choose to be.”
But an undercurrent of danger unspools alongside the sweet buddy movie. First it’s the mean boys at school; then Hogarth and the Giant witness the death of a deer, shot by hunters moments after the Giant pets it. The Giant is heartbroken and confused, and Hogarth has to explain about guns, death, and killing. “Things die, it’s part of life. It’s bad to kill, but it’s not bad to die.” “I, die?” the Giant asks. “You’re made of metal,” Hogarth considers, “but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul. Souls don’t die.”
Ben almost didn’t want to watch the end, sensing the conflict to come, and I didn’t push it, but our mood was somber as the movie drives toward its inevitable conclusion. A government investigator gets wind of the giant and comes to investigate the possibility of a UFO or Russian invader. Scenes between Hogarth and Agent Mansley take on an increasingly menacing tone as the bumbling agent moves from funny cajoling to threats and intimidation. Eli tuned it out, bored; Ben cuddled closer to me, his body tense, and I stroked his head. Then the Army arrives in pursuit of the Giant and the boys watched, wide-eyed, as guns and explosions set off the Giant’s transformation. When provoked, he acts according to his programming: he is a giant gun. The hysterical Mansley orders a missile attack on the Giant.
One week later, we are not done talking about this movie. Eli would like to watch it again; Ben is not so sure. He and I have talked about its narrative, comparing it to the end of Charlotte’s Web, which makes us both weep and feel hopeful. We have talked about The Iron Giant from a political perspective: we trust our president is a conciliator, not an instigator. And we’ve talked about it allegorically; the Iron Giant’s sacrifice is not unlike a certain story he has heard in church. Hogarth and his family are unharmed because of the Giant’s friendship, and ultimately the movie gives viewers hope for the Giant, too. So I don’t regret showing him the movie, and am glad for the good conversations it has inspired. But when my son asks if missiles will strike San Francisco, all I can do is hold him close and tell him what I know: I will do everything I can to keep him safe.